Charles Bock’s first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications like Harper’s, Slate, and The New York Times. His first wife’s name was Diana Joy Colbert, and New York City’s literary community rallied to help cover her tremendous medical costs. Bock spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Charles Bock: We got assigned Crime and Punishment in 10th grade, in the advanced English class. I remember the teacher, but I can’t remember her name. She was a lovely person, a little bit older—she used to laugh a lot. I fell asleep at my desk, once, and she slammed a book next to my head to wake me up. Don’t ever fall asleep in my class again, she said.
This was at my high school in Las Vegas, where I was having a miserable experience. I was not a happy or popular or happy-with-myself kid, and I wasn’t an especially motivated student either. In English, I never did the reading when it was assigned. If a paper was due on Friday, my attitude was: read half the book on Tuesday, the second half on Wednesday, and write the paper Thursday night. Sometimes, I’d just read the Cliff’s Notes and skip the book altogether. Every now and then, I’d read the summary and think, “Oh, that sounds pretty good. Maybe this is something I should come back to.”
As usual, I hadn’t done the reading when we started discussing Crime and Punishment.
Then the teacher mentioned that the main character was going to rob a pawnbroker.
My grandfather was a pawnbroker, and when I was in first or second grade my parents opened their own store. I probably learned to count by putting pawn tickets in numerical order in the back room of the shop. We’d do our homework back there. It was just part of our lives. In 10th grade, I would have been going downtown every day after school, to help my parents close the store.
So that detail really hit home—but it was more than that. Because when I was in seventh grade, my grandfather’s store had been robbed. I’d actually been called out of class and taken to the hospital to see him. These two guys had come inside and pistol-whipped him. There was this huge fight, and they robbed the place. The story led the local evening newscasts. I remember tuning in on the TV to see his store, all the showcases shattered. It was a huge event, hugely scary for me.
So 10th grade, Crime and Punishment. After school, I started reading along with the class for the first time.
It got even weirder, because the pawnbroker Raskolnikov murders is a gruff woman. She reminded me a little of my mother. I think of my mom as a very kind person, but she never wanted to be a pawnbroker. She used to say, Don’t tell people what we do. She always said, Tell people your parents are in sales. She didn’t want people to judge us, I guess. In any case, she wasn’t really suited for it. She was a nervous person who could get upset easily, and she didn’t enjoy being down there. She could really not be easy with the customers.